THE GEORGETOWN INDEPENDENT

Georgetown University, Washington D.C.

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Cockfight

February 16, 2018

      My brother sucked on his teeth and bit his lip in an

attempt to mask the pain as I rubbed sesame oil

into his shoulders. His shoulders were lean but

woven together with sinewy muscles toned by

hours of labor, and his skin had darkened to match

the color of the fertile loam that he tilled. His

shoulders were usually hidden beneath hand-medowns

from our father, a barrel-chested man who

wore shirts that were large and unflattering on my

pubescent brother. Now, however, my brother’s

shoulders were exposed and covered with fire ant

bites.

      “I warned you Seenu, I warned you. Did I not?”

      “Yes Papa, you did.” My brother answered without

missing a beat. No questions were rhetorical in our

household. My brother, unwilling and unable to

match Papa’s ice-cold glare, watched Papa’s bare

feet pace across the dining room floor. I dipped my

fingers into the cup of oil and hoped that I would

evanesce if I just focused all of my attention on my

brother’s shoulders. My brother winced and his

muscles rippled outwards from the impact of my

hands on his body.

       “Beti, don’t forget to tend to the bruises on his wrists

and ankles, too.” Despite my wishes, I hadn’t disappeared.

       “Yes Papa.” I matched my brother’s submissive

tone. I had learned from his mistakes how to speak

to Papa when he was angry. I lubricated my hands

again and began massaging the rope burns on my

brother’s wrists.

      “Seenu, gambling is evil. You know that. Look at

what it did to Mister Rajendra – he is corrupted

and his whole family suffers for his sake. Look at

how thin his boy is! And Lord knows he would

gamble his wife away too, just like Draupadi for a

roll of the dice.”

       “Papa, I won though. We will eat tummy-full all

week.” My brother’s head remained craned

downwards – he offered obedience with his

demeanor and voice, but not with his words. I dug

into his tender wrists with my thumbs in an

attempt to rein him in and prevent him from

talking back to Papa.

       “Win or lose is irrelevant, gambling is gambling.

When you gamble, you gain and spend too

quickly. It’s unnatural, unethical. In life, change

must be gradual and intentional. Life is too short already;

there is no time for heavy windfalls and sudden losses.”

       My brother stiffened at the spine one vertebra at a

time and twisted his arms, breaking free from my

grip. I did not resist him, fearing that I might

aggravate his wounds. He cocked his head

upwards and met my father’s gaze, shedding his

façade of complacency.

      “Was losing Mom gradual? expected? deliberate?”

       “Shut up before I throw you back on that anthill!”

       My brother jumped to his feet and marched to our

room. His oily figure became a mirage under the

harsh summer light. 

                                        ***

       My brother only ever bet on cock fights. I always

thought that his proclivity for cock fighting was a

gradual, natural progression in the course of his

life line. Papa would bring him to watch the cock

fights during the Sankranti festival each year ever

since I was still in the womb and my brother was

too young to retain memories. As the cocks

charged at each other with the calculation of

drunkards, Papa would whisper commentary into my

brother’s ear.

       “See how that cock frills its neck feathers? That

one is truly aggressive, ready to fight. That other one

is docile, effeminate, oh it stands no chance...”

       “Oof, that waste fellow did not even sharpen his

razors. See how sharp the razor is on the white

cock’s feet? That one will surely win...” “Ah, this

match might actually be close. This cock has long

legs but that cock can stay airborne longer with its

powerful wings. See, Seenu, both legs and wings

are important in cockfighting...”

        Papa always postulated which cock would win and

Papa was always correct, but Papa never bet a

single paisa. 

                                        ***

        My brother and I woke to a rooster’s crow a couple

weeks after his ant bites healed. Despite the

oversaturated imagery in books and movies, a

rooster crow was an atypical way for us to wake up

– we kept no cocks on our modest sesame farm.

The sun was still hiding behind the verdant hills

and we deserved another hour of sleep at the very

least. But the cock screeched again, louder, so

cacophonously that it sounded like it was inside the house.

I pulled the covers from my face and rolled off my pillow,

leaving a damp spot where my mouth was. Yet another

squawk rang out. No, the ruckus really was coming from

within the house.

       The two of us rushed into the dining room to find a

cock seemingly too miniscule to produce such large sounds

perched on top of the largest of the three chairs –

Papa’s chair. Papa was the only one allowed to sit in that

chair, that chair with a cushion, that chair at the head of

the table. Papa stood by the entrance to the kitchen,

beaming, even though there was an intruder in his chair.

       “Seenu, I’ve been tough with you,” my father

began in the voice that he reserved for life lessons,

“but that is because I love you.” My brother played

at his silken beginnings of a moustache without

reciprocating sentiments. His feelings had not yet

healed. “And I will not have my only son succumb

to a base addiction like gambling. You must earn

everything in this lifetime and the next. Luck is a

demon after all, and you should never expect

anything of her.” He took a step towards the cock,

halving the distance between him and the bird.

The cock responded to the stimulus of Papa’s

movement the only way it knew how: with a

roaring crow. Papa shifted his attention back to my

brother; the cock, unthreatened, quieted and

remained perched on Papa’s chair. “You can raise

this cock and stake both your pride and reputation

on its successes. Gamble away anything more and

you’ll find yourself back on that anthill.”

       Papa left the house and headed towards the sesame

fields, and my brother transformed from stolid to

bubbling with excitement.

        “Oh, Avanti!” He took my hand and twirled me

like a ballerina. “Name this cock for me, for he

will be the greatest warrior in all of India!” He ran

to the backyard and uprooted the sticks that he and

his friends used as wickets and laid all the stones

he could find in a wide circle. I watched him

effervesce from the kitchen window for a moment,

and then I returned to the cock in the dining room.

        “I’ll call you Krauncha, after Lord Ganesha’s

mouse. You are small, but my brother will make

you big. Oh, you’ll lift elephants.”

         My brother rationed off a portion of each of his

meals for Krauncha and pitted practice fights against

the neighbor’s cocks in his makeshift arena. After a month,

the monsoons pierced the blistering summer heat and

my brother deemed Krauncha fit for battle. On a

Saturday, he brought Krauncha to the town’s weekly

cockfighting match. I didn’t go – I had to prepare dinner

for Papa and my brother. I was relieved to have a

convenient excuse; Krauncha was a pet, not a

warrior. I always called Krauncha by his name.

         That afternoon my brother presented me with a

dead cock – a good sign for Krauncha because the

winner took home the defeated carcass. The

rooster was velvet to the touch, except for the

gashes across its underbelly. The cock was bigger

than Krauncha but apparently lacked the will to

fight. And Krauncha? He was perched on top of

Papa’s chair, as usual.

       I plucked the fallen soldier clean of its amber

feathers, drained its blood, and dropped it, whole,

into a pot of boiling water.

       Papa and my brother inhaled the rooster without

adding any salt or spices. They claimed it tasted

more like genuine victory that way. I didn’t try a

bite; the cock must have had a name to someone, to a girl like me.

       My brother brought home a dead cock the next two

weekends. The third weekend, he returned with

only a shrug.

       “Well, that old cock had a good run.” He bought a

bigger cock that Sunday. Most weeks, he came

home with a single dead cock. Some weeks he

would have two dead cocks: the cock he killed and

his own cock, victorious but injured and otherwise

useless to him. Those weeks Papa and my brother

would each eat an entire rooster, and Papa always

ate the bigger one. On rare weeks, my brother

would return empty handed and he and Papa would

settle for a vegetable curry. 

                                        ***

        “I’m proud of that Seenu.” Papa and I were alone

in the house. His profession had added undue years

to his age, and he could no longer rival the

vigorous sun for an entire day. My brother

compensated for Papa’s wizened body by toiling

hours after the sun had set. I relished the moments

I had alone with Papa. Sometimes he talked to me

like an adult. Sometimes he talked to himself. And

sometimes I could not tell which one of us he was talking to.

“All this cockfighting business has

given him discipline, and a sense of what it means

to earn. It’s really turned him into a man.”

       “Yes Papa. And seeing him work the fields at night

reminds me of the stories Mom would tell about

you in your youth.”

        “Ah, you’re right beti. He could take care of the

whole farm some day.” Papa was not talking to

himself today. “But he also carries so much of his

mother in those deep-set eyes and loose curls... so

many fragments of her. He bears that impatience

of hers. See beti, the cruelest thing about love is

that you fall in love with people’s imperfections.

You fall in love with their crooked nose thinking it

makes them special. I fell in love with your

mother’s dreams for more, her dreams for

something else. But she’s long gone now and that

love has faded; now I can see her imperfections for

what they were. She was impatient, unrealistic.”

        “Papa, if you’re proud of my brother you should

tell him. He admires you, even when he challenges

you. It’s something that he’s been needing to

hear.”

       “I will, when the time is right. But first, I must wait

and watch him grow into his manhood.”

       “Papa, are discipline and earning important for

womanhood, too?” Papa did not have an answer

for me. He began talking to himself again. 

                                        ***

        I stopped naming the cocks after several months; it

made cleaning the carcasses of my pets easier. But

I still prayed for them every Saturday. That year,

for Sankranti, my brother bought a cock with

rainbow plumage. Its hues danced from crimson to

violet as it puffed its prideful chest. The cock

survived Sankranti and the rest of January. I had to

name him. I called him Bhima, after the

gargantuan hero from the Mahabharata that slayed

every last evil Kaurava brother – all one hundred

of them. Papa said that Bhima was dropped on a

boulder when he was a baby and the boulder

shattered. My Bhima, too, would be unbreakable. I

prayed for him every day, not just Saturdays. 

                                        ***

       Week after week my brother would return with

Bhima unscathed and the cadaver of a larger cock

than the week before. And each week, my brother

would stake more of his pride and reputation on

Bhima, always returning victorious. I bought a

larger pot to keep up with my brother and Bhima.

      Soon, however, my brother started coming home

with more than a doubled pride and reputation. He

greeted me in the kitchen wearing a shirt that fit

his growing proportions and bell-bottom pants like

the ones college kids wore.

      “I’m not one to ask you the hard questions,

brother. I just ask that you be careful. Don’t let

Papa catch you in those clothes. God knows we

can’t afford any of those.”

      “I earned this. This isn’t gambling. I’m only

betting on my own cock.” My brother strutted

about the kitchen like a peacock. “Look Avanti, I

even got these for you.” He coaxed a packet

wrapped with newspaper from his tight pockets

and handed it to me as if he was giving me a dead

cock. Inside, I found twelve copper bangles, a

complete set, each one studded with false gems.

      “Brother, no. Take these back. I don’t want to hurt

you.” My brother smiled from the corners of his

mouth and gingerly took my left hand with his

right. He slipped the bangles over my fingers.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” I repeated. The bangles

were too small and caught on the base of my

thumb. My brother applied pressure and a twist,

and the bangles slid onto my wrist. The bangles

hurt. 

                                        ***

      Last week, my brother came home with the largest

cock I have ever seen. I doubt that it would have fit

in my new pot.

       “Papa! Look at this cock Bhima slayed! He really

will kill one hundred!”

      Papa emerged from his bedroom with a scowl and

two ropes – one for my brother’s hands and one for

his feet.

      “I told you not to gamble! I told you not to

gamble!”

       “Papa, what?” My brother, dressed in his hand-medowns,

played innocent.

      “I did not raise a gambler and a liar! Mister

Rajendra came to me, begging for money just an

hour ago. He says he lost fifty rupees to you,

betting against Bhima.” 

      The invincible Bhima cowered under my brother

to attenuate Papa’s berating. My brother looked at

the ropes, at me, at the ropes again, and then he

sprinted out the door with Bhima under his arm. 

                                        ***

      Today is Saturday. I have not seen my brother all

week and I skipped cooking Papa’s dinner to come

to the weekly cockfight. Neither my brother nor

Bhima are here, and I fear that they will not show

next week, either. 

                                        ***

      My father is not a gambling man, but he certainly

is a betting man. This time he’s lost his son. I

wonder if he considers this loss gradual, expected,

deliberate.

 

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